There has been a Somali community in Britain since 1914, when men were recruited under the British empire to fight in WW1. Between the 1940s and 1960s, “seamen” returned to work on British docks before a mass exodus of Somalis took place between the 80s and early 2000s due to the Somali Civil War.
Today, Britain boasts the second largest Somali diaspora community in the world: as of 2015, around 110,000 Somalis were living in the UK. The British-Somali community have traditionally given their votes to the Labour party, but political apathy is a huge problem. Prior to 2015, many community members voiced Labour sentiments but failed to turn up to polling stations to vote. As a result, two years ago during the general election, task-forces were set up in Bristol.
I interviewed Hanad Darwish of the Somali Conservatives, Abdul-Rahman Mohamed of the Somali Youth for Labour and Nimco Ali of the Women’s Equality Party to find out why they are campaigning for their respective parties during the upcoming general election.
Hanad Darwish – Somali Conservatives
“In the Somali community we have this innate sense of a collective everything. All Somalis vote the same way.”
I meet Hanad Darwish at Russell Square station and head over to the park for our interview. Darwish is a member of the Somali Conservatives, a group whose aim is to increase Somali representation in the Conservative party. I sit down with him not knowing what to expect.
Hanad tells me that he initially joined the Labour Party “as a joke” in his teens since it was “the only visible party” in his hometown of Birmingham. He knew that his uncle – a staunch Conservative – hated the Labour party, and just wanted to “piss him off”. Hanad later joined the Conservative party around 2011 – adopting his uncle’s disdain for those campaigning on the left.
“At home, you have your dad and uncles around and they only discuss politics. On my mum’s side of the family . . . that’s where I was more connected to politics back home.”
A Somali, and a Birmingham lad –with two generations of Conservatism present in his family – is almost unheard of with the British Somali community. A glimpse into Hanad’s childhood showcases a politically engaged household where discussions with his father “opened him up to a wider view of society and the world”.
Is Conservatism aligned with Somali culture? The answer, in some senses, is yes since many Somali families place considerable emphasis on working hard, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and “making it”. Hanad deems Jeremy Corbyn’s policies incompatible with Somali interests, and unable to attract lucrative investment and business to the UK.
“You have a lot of Somalis who own small businesses and know a lot about these policies… Somalis are very enterprising, entrepreneurial… it’s like you go out there and get what you want.”
On the EU, Hanad (a Brexiteer) admonishes the EU as “one of the most disgusting bureaucratic systems in existence” and “the only economic block in the world that’s been in constant decline”.
There’s a case to be made however about the importance of political education in schools. We talk about Generation Y, or “millennials” – born between 1980-2000 – and why the majority of this group distrust politicians. Hanad is well-versed in politics and thanks his A-Level Politics teacher for encouraging his interest after his first trip to parliament; something he valued, and would like all students to have the opportunity to engage with.
Abdul-Rahman Mohamed – Somali Youth for Labour
I meet Abdul-Rahman, chairman of the Somali Youth for Labour in leafy Chiswick, West London. Hanad Darwish and Abdul-Rahman are not only the same age but both had a similar path into politics at a young age:
“My journey into politics really started in 2013 during my final year of A-Levels. My teacher was very proactive and she took us to debates and to the Houses of Parliament. It took 16 years of my life to learn a bit about British politics.”
Abdul comes from the other side: from a family who have always voted Labour and a local Somali community, around Acton and Ealing that also have voted the same way. He however, accepts elements of conservatism in his upbringing and the idea of “being dependent on yourself, the individual.” He maintains that his community will still overwhelmingly vote Labour because Labour politics impacts the community in a positive way.
I wanted to know what it means to be Labour, Black, British, Muslim and Somali. Abdul-Rahman told me:
“I think being British and Somali is really appreciating both identities at the same time. We’ve grown up here but at the same time we have that Somalinimo – the best of both worlds.”
He maintains that our community is here to stay and needs to “contribute to British society” and raise its voice.
Abdul was also a Remain voter in the EU referendum and proudly calls himself a European despite receiving negative comments from some and being called “brainwashed” or a “coconut”. Infrastructure is a big issue for him as he compares the progress of the U.K which still looks like the 1960s to him, to the development of other countries in Europe. Abdul spoke about the social housing in countries such as Scandinavia, where income doesn’t define whether you have a decent, liveable home. In contrast, Abdul felt that capital cities were witnessing a rise in great homes for high earners and declining quality for low income families.
Abdul is a fan of Blair’s Labour – as is Hanad – but not so sure about Corbyn. Both abhor the Iraq war; it’s the reason why Abdul says he could never call himself a Blairite. He is certain however, about the policies outlined in the current Labour manifesto, such as nationalising water companies and taxation of high earners. Again, these are policies he believes benefits both him, his wider community, and are policies that present a resistance to the seven years of austerity the UK has faced.
Nimco Ali – The Women’s Equality Party
“I’d never been a member of any political party until I joined the Women’s Equality Party. I was basically the first of 11 people around a kitchen table when this idea came about with Catherine Mayer, who is the co-founder.”
Nimco Ali is a household name in the U.K for her groundbreaking campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) and gender-based violence. She is now running as an MP for the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) in the North London constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green. The WEP formed out of an entrenched disillusionment with major parties to commit to issues such as equal pay, equal representation and child-care in party policy.
Nimco’s journey into politics had a powerful beginning: she tells me that was “politicised by seeing the war in Somaliland”. Nimco recalls how aged six her awoowo (grandfather) was arrested for standing against Siad Barre – a crime which could have resulted in death back then. This experience of injustice made Nimco “realise how powerful politics is”.
This feels like an incredibly compelling trajectory into politics,and I ask the obvious question: why not stand for women’s issues with a major political party? Nimco’s answer is scathing and frank. On the Conservatives, Nimco states that she despises policies that make women “fill in all these pages to prove that they’ve been raped”– referring to the child tax credit “rape clause”, a policy she says she could never support. On Labour, Corbyn is the epitome of “entitled lefty politics that comes with a very toxic misogyny” and the Lib-Dems “believe that prostitution is work; that women’s bodies are there to be sold”.
Nimco aligns herself neither with the left or right but admits that her party’s politics are more on the left-libertarian side of the spectrum. Nimco points out that the policies on gender outlined in the latest Conservative manifesto were, on the surface, very similar to those present in the WEP’s manifesto. Nimco says she welcomes this, as the WEP released their manifesto a week before the other political parties in a bid to have their policies adopted.
The U.K has seen a growing populist trend, against the establishment, which has allowed more parties to become a part of the political dialogue. The same is true on a microscopic level for the Somali community, where generational shifts in voting are taking place and people are voting differently. Do I think the Somali community will start voting for the Conservatives or WEP in droves this election? No, but I am proud of how the Somali community is lending their political voice during these elections. This could perhaps even be a marker of identities being developed outside of the 2D prism of being a “Somali Muslim” – but also being a woman, disabled, a student etc. Difference has encouraged more of us to get active, speak and debate policies that we care about – which I embrace as a positive step for our community.